A 160-Year-Old Photographic Mystery

In 1851, Levi Hill claimed he invented color photography. Was he a genius or a fraud?

In a letter to the Daguerreian Journal in 1851, Levi Hill claimed to have invented color photography. (National Museum of American History, SI)
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By the time he died nine years later, obituaries referred to his Hillotypes as a failed experiment.

“Hill had a lot of supporters and a lot of naysayers,” says Delaney. Hoping to resolve the question of what Hill actually accomplished, she teamed up with independent conservator Corinne Dune and experts from the Getty Conservation Institute and George Eastman House. They analyzed the Smithsonian’s collection of 62 Hillotypes, using the latest methods of spectroscopy to identify materials and pigments without damaging the works. What they found largely vindicated the inventive clergyman.

“There’s limited color, but a wide enough range to see that he was successful,” Delaney says. But the project’s researchers also discovered that some of Hill’s works had been hand-colored or enhanced.

Delaney, who is still researching Hill, plans to include a chapter about him in a book she is writing about early American photography. “I think his legacy is that he really inspired people, in both America and Europe, to go forth and work with color processes,” she says.

She has made two visits to West Kill to consult local historians and archives, and hopes to track down more of Hill’s work, since his logbooks show he was prolific. She is particularly curious about the contemporary European art prints Hill often used as photo subjects.

“West Kill is still basically a one-block town, so I’m thinking, where did he get all those European prints?” And, she wonders, “How would someone not trained in chemistry learn to do this stuff?”

At the very least, he was a colorful character.

About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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